Former Governor Sarah Palin has a new foreign policy team, but the real story is that she may be shifting her entire foreign policy persona to accommodate a GOP voting pool that is increasingly driven by Tea Party politics.
In a speech at Colorado Christian University on Monday, Palin laid out a foreign policy framework that runs counter to her previous identity as a pro-military, pro-defense budget, pro-intervention hawk. She criticized the war in Libya -- despite the fact she once pressed for the no-fly zone there.
"We should only commit our forces when clear and vital American interests are at stake. Period," Palin said. She called nation building "a nice idea in theory," and criticized the placement of U.S. forces under foreign command, another reference to the NATO-led mission in Libya. "We can't fight every war, we can't undo every injustice in the world," Palin said.
Until now, Palin has been the Tea Party's hawk, the movement's main leader in the fight to wall off foreign policy and national security from budget cuts, and a primary opponent of the effort to pull back America's foreign military presence around the world. Her change in tone and substance could reflect the growing power of the libertarian wing of the Tea Party, which is now well-represented in Congress, in advance of the 2012 primary season.
"She sounds more Michele Bachmann-esque," said Tom Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "The temptation to move to the right-wing version of ‘come home America' is increasing all the time."
If she does run in 2012, Palin could face a field of candidates who are more libertarian than neoconservative. Bachmann, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee all have espoused views that warn about the overuse of U.S. military force. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty lean more to the military-focused approach that has guided GOP foreign policy since President Ronald Reagan's administration.
But many in the new generation of GOP politicians don't remember the Cold War and see the Pentagon as just another bloated bureaucracy, Donnelly said.
"The issue set that got them elected was all domestic or social policy and part of the libertarian trope is to be for military power but be very judicious about using it," he said. "This is not just a Palin phenomenon."
Who will win the internal GOP battle over national security policy? "I don't think the outcome is knowable," said Donnelly.
Meanwhile, Politico reported today that Palin has cut ties with Randy Scheunemann and Michael Goldfarb, two partners in the consulting firm Orion Strategies, who had been her primary foreign policy advisors since the McCain presidential campaign in 2008. She has a new foreign policy advisor, Peter Schweizer, a Hoover Institution fellow who blogs for Andrew Breitbart's website Big Peace.
Scheunemann was a top McCain campaign advisor who sided with Palin after the election, during a period of internecine fighting among former McCain team staffers. Goldfarb, another key McCain campaign staffer, previously ran the blog at the Weekly Standard, which is edited by Bill Kristol. They had been crafting what was until recently Palin's mostly neoconservative stance on a range of foreign policy issues, including her opposition to New START, support for robust defense budgets, criticism of Obama's handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and backing for the surge in Afghanistan.
"The personnel shift carries an ideological charge," wrote Politico's Ben Smith. [Scheunemann and Goldfarb] crafted for Palin a policy platform and voice reflecting an eagerness to use American force.... Schweizer has articulated a more skeptical view of the use of American force and promotion of democracy abroad."
But Palin didn't drop Orion, it was the other way around. And Orion didn't drop Palin over ideological differences. They told her staff weeks ago that they were simply too swamped with other clients and needed to consolidate their time and resources. Their firm, Orion Strategies, has taken on clients including Google and the Koch brothers recently.
It's also no secret that Palin is a complicated client to work with. She is difficult to manage, hard to schedule for events, and doesn't always stay on the talking points provided to her, according to several articles on how she operates. Nevertheless, Scheunemann told The Cable that her core beliefs on foreign policy are firm and consistent.
"Sarah Palin has been a powerful advocate for freedom, democracy, and human rights all over the world, and I don't think that's going to change because of who her advisers are -- that's who she is," he said.
GOP foreign policy experts aren't so sure. They believe that Palin is moving to a foreign policy identity more in line with the Tea Party politics of the moment, and perhaps more in line with her ever-emerging personal beliefs.
"This may be her finding her niche. Up until now people have been trying to make her into something," Donnelly said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.